There are many theories about how to maintain our health and well-being as we get older. One of the leading ones is to have a pet in our lives.
Numerous studies over the years have shown that a pet can provide comfort, companionship, activity and emotional support for seniors (and people of any age).
A little more than half – 55 percent – of Americans age 50 to 80 have pets, according to a 2019 study commissioned by AARP and Michigan Medicare. When asked to cite the benefits of having a pet, 79 percent mentioned reduced stress.
Being more active was mentioned by 64 percent, while 62 percent felt that a regular routine was the best benefit of having a pet to care for. Just over half of seniors surveyed (51 percent) said having a pet made them feel more protected. And 34 percent said having a pet took their minds off pain.
In a 2014 survey by AARP, seniors were asked what made them the happiest. Seventy percent said relationships with others; pets came in a close second, with 66 percent.
Having a pet “boosts social engagement, elevates mood, provides a reason to stay in better physical shape and it can be a positive predictor of survival,” according to Amy Stone, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida and a veterinarian at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. Stone said she has “personally observed an increase in mood (less loneliness), a desire to stay in better shape to be able to care for the animal as well as a sense of purpose” by seniors wanting to take care of their pets.
The vast majority of pets are cats, dogs and birds — animals that can interact in some fashion with their owners. But the type of pet doesn’t matter as much as whether it can be properly taken care of, Stone said.
“I currently have a client who is in her 70s and cares (for) about 10 birds. She has been a bird owner her whole life,” Stone said. “Many of our assisted living facilities in our area have fish tanks that are well-loved.”
Other clients, Stone noted, left their careers early to raise and show their horses or other pets. “They really have a passion for this and want to pursue it in their retirement,” she said.
For Hillary Hart, a veterinarian whose practice takes her into the homes of clients throughout most of Pinellas County, the benefits of a pet are evident every day. "I see it all the time,” Hart, 62, said.
“I go to a lot of senior living facilities (where) a lot of couples have pets. It gives them a purpose in life. Their whole life changed from living in their house and now in an assisted living facility,” Hart said.
For clients who live alone with their pet? “They don’t get visitors. It’s the only companion they have.”
Seniors make up about a third of Hart’s practice. For many living on Social Security, pet care is a financial challenge. Hart cited two area agencies that help their clients with pet medical bills and medicines: Canine Care Tampa Bay and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “They help with 85 to 100 percent of the pet’s medical bills, licenses, shots and medicines,” she said. “And I only charge my costs.”
It’s not always necessary to own a pet to have a relationship with a pet, notes UF’s Stone. Some places have community pets (like fish tanks) “or visiting pets that come to spend time with folks."
“Additionally, many veterinary clinics and referral hospitals love to have volunteers come and talk to the clients and pet the animals, when appropriate, while they wait to see the doctor.”
Stone is no stranger to pets in her personal life. She has a dog, a horse, a snake and a bird. “They make us laugh and provide unconditional love,” she said, adding “I know that keeps my mental health better and keeps me wanting to make sure that I am around for them for a very long time.”
If a senior asks veterinarian Hart for a recommendation, she suggests a small dog, one that is easy for a senior to pick up and carry. “I recommend to seniors to adopt a middle-aged dog, not a puppy. You have to consider the age of the animal and your own age,” she said.
And one of her favorite recommendations to a senior planning to adopt a pet is to go to a rescue shelter. “You’re saving them and they’re saving you,” she said.